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The Soul of a Watering Hole

Can a venerable Tenderloin bar thrive in 21st-century San Francisco without selling a $15 cocktail?

SLIDESHOW

Owner and bartender Peter Friel pulls a pint.

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Robert Woolever and his girlfriend, Joanne Harris [pictured with their Chihuahua, Joey], have been regulars at Harry Harringtons fo rdecades.

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Joanne Harris.

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This is one of many stories from San Francisco's February 2018 Bars & Nightlife issue. Check them all out here.

Rob is 66 years old, with a white beard and a black 49ers cap, and with every passing moment, he’s losing consciousness. The vodka and cranberry juice resting on the bar is in danger of colliding with his drooping head. Joanne, his girlfriend of 15 years, gives him a quick prod in the ribs. “Stay awake, Rob!” He springs to attention as if he’s received a poke from a policeman’s truncheon. “Hooooooo!” he exhales, his eyes wide. “What’d I miss?”

It’s around 3 p.m. on a Wednesday at Harry Harrington’s Pub, a place where men and women (mostly men) have drunk and laughed and smoked and, yes, fallen asleep at Larkin and Turk for nearly a century. By 1910, this ground-floor commercial space was underwriting a Catholic boys’ home located upstairs. Post-prohibition, it fell into the hands of local tavern impresario Harry Harrington, who rechristened it with the name it still has. The city around it has changed. This bar, though, hasn’t. At least to the untrained eye.

Joanne’s is not an untrained eye. She’s been wandering in here between 10 a.m. and 2 a.m. for decades now. She knows all the old boxing posters. She remembers the Irish contractors who used to come in to get their checks cashed to avoid IRS scrutiny. She remembers the old junkies and bookies, like the one who maced Rob right in this very chair, getting them both eighty-sixed for a while. And she can still see the basement strewn with snoring patrons and bartenders. “I’d wake up and Rob wouldn’t be there,” Joanne says. “And I’d think, ‘I know exactly where he is; he’s in the fucking basement, asleep. Again.’”

Peter Friel put an end to most of that. He likes to tell people that he’s the bar’s maintenance man. That’s true, but he actually owns the place and is one of the proprietors of the Irish Bank pub downtown, along with his wife. He’s also a carpenter who has literally built bars from the ground up. In a more metaphysical sense, that’s what he’s doing here at Harry Harrington’s. “I’ve kind of been around bars all my life,” says the 52-year-old native of Donegal, Ireland, who arrived in the Bay Area in 1985 as a 19-year-old and immediately commenced an epic bender. After two days of beers and shots, he realized that he’d gotten off at the wrong BART stop and was in San Francisco, not Oakland. He hasn’t left since.

As part of a years-long remodeling effort at Harry’s, Friel is trying to create a place where regulars like Rob and Joanne can exist along with new folks: Dudes with earbuds. Concertgoers. People too young to remember the Challenger exploding. This stands in sharp contrast to the standard template in San Francisco, where a down-and-out bar is bought, the regulars are jettisoned, and wealthy folks arrive to invest in avant-garde cocktails.

When he first got to town, Friel used the Harry’s phone booth as his office to line up construction jobs. The pay phone is still here, and Friel is determined to preserve as much of the blue-collar soul of the place as he can. “This city is saturated with high-end cocktail joints,” he says. The epitome of this trend is just up the road at Turk and Taylor, where the 21 Club, a legendarily warmhearted bar despite its location at one of the worst intersections in San Francisco, closed down in favor of an überfancy cocktail joint named, just to make matters worse, Biig.

Friel wants none of that. “Everything is changing, but not everything has to. Harry Harrington’s just needs to be a real, neighborhood bar. Not the place where you’re going to wait 25 minutes for a drink that costs 25 bucks, but where you’ll pay 8 bucks and the drink’ll be there within 30 seconds.”

Still, he’s not averse to improvements. He leads me to the alleyway alongside his bar. Right now it’s just an unloved scrap of pavement, but he envisions outdoor tables, heat lamps, umbrellas, and, of course, beer and good times. “Outdoor dining in the Tenderloin,” he says. “Wouldn’t that be something?”

 

It took some heavy lifting to drag Harry’s into the 21st century. After buying the bar from Phil Lyons for an undisclosed amount, Friel got to work cleaning out its Augean stables—more precisely, its basement. The place where Rob had once crashed was home to detritus dating back to the Depression, including suitcases with clothes and rosary beads. The assembled crap filled 13 dumpster loads. Friel also had to give the boot to a few regulars whose behavior exceeded even his considerable tolerance for alcoholic surliness. Aboveground, Friel expanded the bar into the abandoned smoke shop next door, which is now a room that can be rented out for parties, and added a platoon of TVs.

For the regulars who’ve stuck with this bar, doing so comes with a price. Gone are the $4 well drinks. Now they run $7, as do most pints (although Bud, Bud Light, and such are only $5). When asked what they don’t like about the bar’s changes, regulars give the same answer: “The prices.”

But they return, some of them at 10 a.m. sharp, every day. Because, like at any good Irish bar, it’s a community in here. On a recent weekday afternoon, Mike, a 78-year-old retired electrician from Dublin, asks Tee, a 53-year-old black woman from Chicago, to shoot a round of pool. With billiard balls providing a backbeat, nine men and three women are whiling away the day here. There are a few aging locals, a few laborers with paint-splattered boots chatting in Spanish, and a few young dudes in flannel shirts.

In trying to “bring Harry’s back to what it was,” as Friel puts it, the owner is doing what some city leaders have been attempting to do in recent years: integrate the old and the new, maintain tradition in an increasingly rudderless place. San Francisco Chronicle reporter J.K. Dineen, author of High Spirits: The Legacy Bars of San Francisco, hopes more city bar owners will follow Friel’s model—appeal to tech people and SRO residents alike. “Don’t try to impose your vision on the neighborhood,” Dineen says. “Absorb the neighborhood.”

This is easier said than done. And by no means is everyone 100 percent pleased with the changes that have swept through Harry’s. But to the objective outsider, the new bar seems to have preserved the qualities that made the old bar work—and shed some of the ones that had exceeded their sell-by date. Longtime regulars like Mike and Tee and Rob and Joanne are no longer certain what Harry’s is, but they’re in agreement that it isn’t a dive anymore—a dive being defined as “a place where you can buy more dope over the bar than booze.” (For the record, Friel says Harry’s wasn’t that kind of dive; a bar around the corner was, though, and got busted.) And, mostly, they’re fine with that.

“This place is a habit,” says another regular, Eric, who claims to own four houses but has to borrow a buck from Joanne to settle his tab. “I have a self-imposed eighty-six here after the holidays. I am here too much.”

Joanne certainly agrees with that. “Last time,” she says, “you lasted two weeks.”

“I lasted a month, darlin’,” Eric responds.

“It felt like two weeks,” Joanne mutters under her breath. She looks to her left and notices that, once more, Rob is out cold. She jostles him, and he’s up like a shot.

“Hooooooo!” he exhales, his eyes wide. “What’d I miss?”

 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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